September 25, 2022

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A man who died in an RCMP holding cell in Grande Prairie, Alta., last month should have been medically assessed before he was detained by police, a criminologist says.

Addison Hartzler, 30, was arrested in the early hours of June 3 after calling 911 for what he believed was a break and enter at the home where he was living.

When officers found no evidence of a break-in was found, Hartzler was arrested for public mischief  — roughly nine minutes after RCMP had arrived at the scene. 

Nine hours later, he was found unresponsive in a cell at the Grande Prairie RCMP detachment.

His death is now being investigated by Alberta’s police watchdog, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team.

RCMP told Hartzler’s family he had been acting in a psychotic and delusional manner before he was arrested, but that he was not medically assessed.

“If the individual is acting erratically, why didn’t the officers on the scene request paramedic assistance to come and assess this individual?” said Doug King, a professor in justice studies at Mount Royal University. 

The death raises questions about the way police make arrests, assess the medical needs of suspects and protect detainees, King said. 

Addison Hartzler was found dead in an RCMP holding cell in Grande Prairie, Alta., on June 3, nine hours after he was arrested for public mischief on suspicion he had falsely reported a break-and-enter at the home where he was staying. Hartzler is shown in this undated family handout photo. (Submitted by Gregory Hartzler/The Canadian Press)

The arresting officer later told Hartzler’s father his son had been unwilling or unable to provide his name to police. Because of that, they detained him until he could be identified and the mischief charge could be formally laid. 

Hartzler’s apparent confusion suggests he needed immediate medical attention, King said.

Officers will need to answer why they instead placed him alone in a cell, he said.

“The question then becomes an issue of police officer judgment.

“When the paramedics get involved, when the medical assessment happens, it is all triggered by one of these judgments. But that doesn’t mean that those officers aren’t accountable for the judgments that they make.” 

A patient report indicates RCMP last saw Hartzler alive at 9 a.m., more than two hours before paramedics were called to the detachment, despite an RCMP policy stating that cells should be checked at minimum every 15 minutes.

Speed of arrest questioned

Alberta RCMP were initially tasked with investigating the in-custody death. ASIRT took over the investigation last week after the Hartzler family fought to have the case reassigned. 

Sandy Jung, a psychology professor and crime researcher at MacEwan University, said ASIRT’s investigation should focus on what evidence RCMP used to detain Hartzler and determine that he was not in need of medical attention.

The speed of the arrest — nine minutes after officers first interacted with Hartzler — is disconcerting, Jung said.

“What kind of investigation even happened to kind of lead them to bring him to holding cells?

“I don’t think there was enough time there to make that kind of decision.”

Jung questions if responding officers made unfounded assumptions about Hartzler’s mental state and motives.

She said Hartzler appeared compliant with officers in home security video of the arrest.

The video shows him sitting in the back of a police cruiser moments after officers arrive. He had not been handcuffed.

“Removing him from the premises and actually putting him in a holding cell? What evidence do they have to support that?” Jung said.

“I would say decisions were made fairly rapidly.”

RCMP have declined to comment on the actions of officers in the case, citing the ongoing ASIRT probe.

Watch video of RCMP response here: 

Alberta father alleges negligence after son dies in RCMP custody

Addison Hartzler, 30, died in a holding cell at the Grande Prairie RCMP detachment on June 3, hours after being arrested at his home.

An EMS patient report states that by 11:17 a.m, Hartzler was “obviously dead” in his cell.

RCMP told responding paramedics they suspected he had been using cocaine.

Hartzler’s father believes he was experiencing a medical episode unrelated to drugs and alcohol. A cause of death has yet to be determined.

King said that if detachment logs show Hartzler was left unattended for hours, it would be a clear violation of RCMP protocol. Officers involved could be found culpable in his death, he said.

“It has civil implications of negligence. And that can have monetary impact for the RCMP. It could also mean some form of reprimand or sanction against the officers at the scene.

“And I can well speculate that none of that would resolve the anguish that the family feels.” 

Hartzler’s father said the family would consider pursuing a lawsuit against the RCMP if the ASIRT probe uncovers any wrongdoing. He said the family also wants a public inquiry.

Caseload high at ASIRT

The province’s director of law enforcement initially said the investigation would remain with RCMP because there was no confrontation between RCMP and Hartzler, and because of the number of files that had been recently assigned to ASIRT.

ASIRT took over the investigation on Aug. 9 and received the case file earlier this week.

In an interview, ASIRT executive director Mike Ewenson said the agency’s caseload is high.

“The workload, it ebbs and flows,” Ewenson said. “We can become taxed quickly with a few case files that are assigned all at once.”

ASIRT’s active cases include an investigation into the death of another man in holding cells in Grande Prairie.

The 26-year-old was arrested for mischief on  Feb.7, 2021, after police were called to a report of a man who had consumed drugs and was creating a disturbance at a home. He was found unresponsive in his cell the following morning.

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